What is Arthritis and why do my joints hurt?

Learn more about hip and knee arthritis and take the arthritis quiz at the end to determine if you need a joint replacement.

Arthritis is the number one cause of pain and suffering in the adult population. The word arthritis means "inflammation of the joint". It is estimated that one out of every seven adults suffers from some type of arthritis. These individuals know the frustration of aching pain in the joints. When affecting the legs, these pains come with activities as simple as getting out of a chair, climbing a few steps or just walking around the house. Others have the disease in their hands or arms, making it difficult to comb their hair, reach above their head or even hold a fork in some cases.

The joints in the body all consist of the same basic structure. Where two bones join together, articular cartilage forms on the ends of each bone. This cartilage is very smooth, slick and white in the normal state. The bones are stabilized by ligaments that hold the bones together. The motors that move the joints are the muscles, which are attached to the bones by tendons. The joint has a special lining called the synovium, which produces an oily fluid that lubricates the articular cartilage. As the cartilage itself has no blood supply, the fluid from the lining also provides oxygen and nutrition to the cartilage cells in the joint. There is one other structure found near the joint, which is called a bursa. This structure is outside of the joint itself and is interposed between moving tendons, ligaments, skin or bone. It also has a lining that produces a small amount of fluid under normal conditions.

While the term "arthritis" literally means inflammation of the joint, in general, it describes a condition of progressive cartilage, bone and soft tissue damage. The signs and symptoms of arthritis include pain, swelling, progressive weakness, loss of motion and often a sensation of grinding or popping in the joint. Other types of inflammation around the joint include tendonitis and bursitis, and while these conditions can cause pain, they do not lead to joint destruction. Bursitis and tendonitis are common conditions around the hip, knee, elbow and shoulder.

There are many different kinds of arthritis, but the most common form is degenerative or osteoarthritis. This is the wear and tear arthritis associated with aging, and accounts for over 80 percent of the cases of arthritis. The joints most commonly affected by osteoarthritis include the spine, hips, knees, shoulders and fingers. As the articular cartilage and bone become more damaged or "worn", the joint will get stiff, painful and crooked. It can also lead to a loss of height, or leg length inequality. This type of arthritis can be precipitated by an injury to the joint, which may have happened years prior.

Inflammatory Arthritis accounts for the remaining cases of arthritis. This group of diseases is believed to be caused by a misdirected immune system. For some reason, the body's defense mechanism attacks its own articular cartilage, creating widespread joint disease. While there are many types of inflammatory arthritis, the most common form is Rheumatoid Arthritis. This disease can affect anyone from young children to older adults and has a tendency to run in some families. Any joint in the body can be involved with this disease, and it commonly attacks the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and feet. This is a very crippling form of arthritis and is difficult to treat.

The signs and symptoms of arthritis are similar no matter what type of condition you may have. They can include pain in or around the joint, swelling, loss of movement in the joint, or muscle weakness in groups of muscles that move the joint. Patients will often report a grinding sensation like gravel in the joint when they move or walk. Over time, the joint may become crooked, as in a bowlegged or knock-knee deformity. If the hips or knees are involved, most patients report increasing problems getting out of a chair, or climbing stairs, and decreased walking ability.

Arthritis Quiz

Answer yes or no to the following questions:

  1. Have you tried arthritis medication, pain medication or other conservative measures to relieve your arthritis pain?
  2. Have these conservative measures failed to adequately relieve your pain?
  3. Does the arthritic joint cause you pain almost constantly making it difficult to fall asleep or awaken you at night?
  4. Are you having difficulty doing your usual activities of daily living including going up and down stairs, putting on your shoes and socks or getting in and out of the car?
  5. Is your distance you are able to walk limited to less than 2 blocks due to your arthritis pain?
  6. Do you have to use a cane or a crutch to walk even short distances due to joint pain?
  7. Is your quality of life diminishing due to inability to participate in leisure activities because of joint pain?

If you answered yes to all or most of these questions, you may be a candidate for joint replacement.